There’s something inherently romantic about the fantasy of leaving the hustle and bustle of a city for the calm, uninhabited serenity of nature. Pack up your clothes, tell your landlord where to stick it and buy a one-way ticket to a new life in the wilderness, learn how to be one with nature and hopefully find yourself in the process.
If you’ve ever wanted to experience an escape to the Alaskan tundra but don’t want to risk your life and sanity, Timberline Studio’s pilot game “The Red Lantern,” available on the Nintendo eShop and Epic Games Store, might appeal to you. Made up of industry veterans, Timberline promises a story-driven rouge-lite adventure where players control the Musher and their team of five sled dogs as they travel through the Alaskan brush to find their way home.
Voiced by the multi-talented actress Ashley Burch (“Horizon Zero Dawn”), the Musher instantly comes off as charming and understandable. Life in the city simply wasn’t for her, and she’s in over her head trying to carve out a new life for herself in Alaska. There is something refreshing about seeing a character do something for their own purposes and not some world-altering event. It’s a good thing Burch is so likeable because she talks a lot throughout the game, which wouldn’t be a negative if not for the fact that she is constantly repeating lines. Ironically, for all that she talks, there is a lack of character within the Musher. We learn that she left the city and ran away to find her purpose in life, but by the end of the adventure she isn’t any more fulfilled or enlightened.
The gameplay isn’t what one would expect when promised a rogue-lite, as the only thing to control is which decisions the Musher makes, whether that’s telling the dogs to go haw or gee (right or left) or to investigate something interesting. Each “section” of the wilderness has a beginning and end, marked by orange flags, and within each section an event will occur. It’s in these events that the player can act: Do they hunt an animal, gather birch bark or merely wait and see what the animals do? Each event is randomly generated, giving the game a smattering of chance rather than skill, as it is entirely up to the Alaskan gods to decide when you’ll be able to hunt, find ammunition or be attacked by an unstoppable animal. Now and then you’ll find a permanent upgrade or an event that leads to a random upgrade at the start of the next run, but nothing radically changes the gameplay to feel more engaging or skill-based.
In the four runs it took me to reach the cabin (which took a total of about two hours), I encountered the same events multiple times. The same wolf would attack me in the same looking area, the same dialogue would be said after each difficult event, the same beaver would try to drop a tree on me. I clearly didn’t run into every event the game had to offer — I know I left items like the fishing rod behind — but somehow I kept running into the same few in such a short span of time. By the time I reached the cabin and rolled credits, I felt I had seen all that “The Red Lantern” had to offer.
I don’t want it to seem like the developers at Timberline didn’t do anything right. The atmosphere of the Alaskan wilderness is beautifully rendered and, when paired with the ambient score by Hrishikesh Hirway, there were times I gasped and simply took in the view. The game ran well on the Switch, even with a few graphical hiccups now and then, and all the dogs are absolutely charming and adorable with individual personalities and abilities. It’s easy to tell that the game is a product of tender love and care, especially when players can pet each and every individual dog as often as they want. As stated before, Burch does an admirable job with her extensive dialogue to make the Musher feel real (if one-dimensional), someone I yearned to know more about but was never given the chance to hear their full story.
At its best, “The Red Lantern” constantly wants to evoke a feeling of awe and unpredictability that comes from a life-altering journey to uninhabited Alaska. The effort is there and the developers know what they want it to be, but the game ultimately falls flat on multiple fronts. With a lackluster story, unengaging chance-based gameplay and repetitive nature, “The Red Lantern” is better off serving as a stepping stone for Timberline Studio’s next project. Even if the call to the wild in you is strong, I’d suggest waiting for a price drop before venturing out to Alaska with the Musher and all her pups.
Daily Arts Contributor M. Deitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.